The Victoriansby A. N. Wilson
With his flair for dramatic stories and telling detail, A. N. Wilson singles out those writers, statesmen, scientists, philosophers, and soldiers whose lives illuminated the fervor of an age on the cusp of modernity. Here we meet the lofty and famous - Prince Albert, Darwin, Marx, Gladstone, Christina Rossetti, Gordon of Khartoum, Cardinal Newman, George Eliot,… See more details below
With his flair for dramatic stories and telling detail, A. N. Wilson singles out those writers, statesmen, scientists, philosophers, and soldiers whose lives illuminated the fervor of an age on the cusp of modernity. Here we meet the lofty and famous - Prince Albert, Darwin, Marx, Gladstone, Christina Rossetti, Gordon of Khartoum, Cardinal Newman, George Eliot, Kipling, and Disraeli. But we also meet the poor and the obscure - doctors ministering to cholera victims in the big cities; young women working as models for famous painters; the man who got the British hooked on cigarettes; the colonizers and colonized in Ireland, India, and Africa.
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The Little Old Woman Britannia
On 16 October 1834, two visitors arrived at the Palace of Westminster and asked to be shown the chamber of the House of Lords. Parliament was in recess: sessions were much shorter in those days than now. The Speaker of the Lords, the Clerk of the Parliament, the Gentleman Usher of Black Rod, the Sergeant-at-Arms - all those charged with the responsibility for the safety and upkeep of the Houses of Parliament - were away, in the country. The place was in the charge of a housekeeper called Mrs Wright.
When, at four o'clock that afternoon, Mrs Wright showed the visitors into the chamber of the Lords, they could scarcely make out the magnificent tapestries on the walls. There was smoke everywhere. The visitors complained that the stone floor was so hot that they could feel it through the soles of their feet. The throne, the grand centrepiece of the chamber, where sat the constitutional monarch when opening and proroguing their Lordships' assemblies, was invisible because of smoke. The house was, Mrs Wright agreed, in 'a complete smother'.
The workmen in the crypt who had started the blaze had been charged, in the absence of the parliamentarians, with the task of burning the wooden tallies used by the Exchequer for centuries as a means of computing tax. These were modern times and these wooden tabs were to be replaced by figures written down in paper ledgers. It had been suggested to the Clerk of Works at Westminster, Richard Whibley, that this abundance of little sticks would make useful kindling for the fireplaces of the poor. (Then, as now, there were many poor people living within a short walk of the Houses of Parliament.)
The sticks were housed at Westminster, and it would naturally occur to any intelligent person that nothing could be easier than to allow them to be carried away for firewood, by some of the many miserable creatures in that neighbourhood. However, they never had been useful, and official routine could not endure that they ever should be useful, and so the order went forth that they were to be privately and confidentially burnt. It came to pass that they were burnt in a stove in the House of Lords. The stove over-gorged with these preposterous sticks, set fire to the panelling; the panelling set fire to the House of Lords; the House of Lords set fire to the House of Commons; the two houses were reduced to ashes; architects were called in to build two more; and we are now in the second million of the cost thereof; the national pig is not nearly over the style yet; and the little old woman, Britannia, hasn't got home tonight.
The voice, unmistakably, is that of Charles Dickens (1812-70), speaking years after the fire. There was, as he half implied, a fittingness about the fire. The Reform Bill of 1832 had selfconsciously ushered in a new era; when the emperor of Russia heard of the Westminster fire he thought it was heavenly punishment for the Whiggish abolition of rotten boroughs - boroughs which, with only a handful of voters, could nevertheless return a member of Parliament. That was perhaps because he saw the passing of the Reform Bill as the first stage of the modernizing of the British political system, the first unpicking of an old-fashioned system of hierarchy, and deference, the first stage in a hand-over of political power from the aristocracy to the bourgeoisie. This, however, was hardly how it appeared at the time. Few, if any, of the Whig aristocrats who had reformed the parliamentary system were believers in democracy. All deplored the notion of universal suffrage. The extension of the suffrage, which diehards so regretted, was limited wholly to persons of property. The great Reform Act 'had defined more clearly than at any time before or since in British history, and more clearly than had been done in any other country, a qualification for the inclusion in the political institutions of the country based entirely on the possession of property, and the possession of a regular income'.
Even with the abolition of rotten boroughs, the new Parliament was representative of the people only in the most notional sense. That was not how it conceived its purpose. What was new about the political classes in the so-called Age of Reform was their desire, a successful desire, to exercise control over the populace. There was no divide in the Parliament of the 1830s and 1840s between what a modern person would conceive of as Left and Right. The agitations of the Left took place then - as, very largely now - outside Parliament. The problem for the political classes - whether old Whig aristocrats, Tory squires, or the new manufacturing and industrial bigwigs whose emergence into the political scene was to change the climate so radically - was all seen as the same problem: how to control a rapidly expanding population. How to feed it, how to keep it busy, how, if it was Irish, or Scottish, to restrain it from open rebellion, how, if it was poor and discontented, to discourage it from sedition, how, if it was French, to prevent it from invading Great Britain, how, if it was Jamaican or Canadian, to stop it seceding from the British Crown. Hence the development in this era of the first police force, of tight controls over paupers, and of the workhouses in which to incarcerate those incapable of feeding their families.
These were the common problems agreed upon by almost all parliamentarians, though the Tories might be more inclined in some areas, the Radicals in others, to raise a voice of protest against the incursion, by new parliamentary measures, into the personal liberty of Englishmen.
The statistics speak for themselves. Over the previous eighty years, the population of England, Wales and Scotland had doubled - 7,250,000 in 1751, 10,943,000 in 1801, 14,392,000 in 1821; by 1831, 16,539,000 - and in Ireland 4,000,000 had become 8,000,000.
Economics and politics conceived in terms of population-growth was an inevitable development in the history of human thought. If the Reverend Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) had not existed it would have been necessary to invent him and someone else would have written An Essay on the Principle of Population, a work which he first wrote in 1798 and constantly revised - in 1803, 1806, 1807, 1817 and 1826. The Malthusian questions have not gone away in the twenty-first century, though Western societies have a polite way of exporting them and worry more about the population of India and China than they do about that of, let us say, Britain. A recent edition of Malthus's essay has an introduction which reminds us in apocalyptic terms that 'in the 1990s the world is gaining each year the population equivalent of Sri Lanka, the UK, Haiti and Somalia combined . . . By 2050 we shall have a world population of ten billion.'
Such figures would have confirmed the worst fears of the Reverend Thomas Malthus, who in the 1790s had a friendly argument with his father about the population question. Daniel Malthus believed, with such sages as Condorcet, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and William Godwin, that society was advancing towards perfection. Thomas believed that human population grows at a 'geometric' rate, as in the series, 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, whereas means of subsistence must grow at an arithmetical rate - 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. The inevitable consequence of this, he believed, was starvation - and before that the misery, belligerence and social disruption which hunger brings to human societies.
Although seen immediately as a kind of monster - Shelley called him 'a eunuch and a tyrant', Dickens makes Scrooge a mouthpiece for Malthusianism by asking why the poor don't go away and die 'to decrease the surplus population' - it was in fact with the highest altruism that Malthus wrote his Essay. He wanted poor people not to be poor - or if inevitably poor, at least to be well fed. Paradoxically he saw that the existent Poor Laws - what we would call Welfare - encouraged a dependency-culture. Whereas the old Poor Laws had left to the discretion of local parishes the choice of to whom charitable provision should be made, the new Poor Laws - enacted by the last Parliament before the fire of 1834 - centralized the provision of Poor Relief. Rather than extending charity to the poor in their own homes, the Commissioners had built a chain of workhouses across the country. It could be said that no one had to go to the workhouse. When the alternative, however, was to watch children go hungry, it is not surprising that the hated places began to fill up, even though most were faithful to the ideals of the Reverend H.H. Milman, writing to Edwin Chadwick, 'the workhouses should be a place of hardship, of coarse fare, of degradation and humility; it should be administered with strictness - with severity; it should be as repulsive as is consistent with humanity'.
No wonder that those who found themselves taken to the workhouse should have cursed Malthus in their hearts - Malthus who advocated 'restraint' among the lower orders as the only permissible form of birth control.
One such child, born surplus to requirements in Staffordshire in the 1840s, remembered:
We went by the field road to Chell, so as to escape as much observation as possible. One child had to be carried as she was too young to walk. The morning was dull and cheerless. I had been through those fields in sunshine, and when the singing of the birds made the whole scene very pleasant. Now, when the silence was broken, it was only by deep agonizing sobs. If we could have seen what was driving us so relentlessly up that hill to the workhouse ('Bastille' as it was bitterly called then) we should have seen two stern and terrible figures - Tyranny and Starvation . . . As a child - 'the very vastness of it' [the workhouse] chilled us. Our reception was more chilling still . . . No 'softening gleam' fell upon us from any quarter. We were a part of Malthus's 'superfluous population' and our existence only tended to increase the poverty from which we suffered. 'Benevolence', he said, 'in a being so short-sighted as man, would lead to the grossest error, and soon transform the fair and cultivated soil of civilised society into a dreary scene of want and confusion'. This truly was a 'nice derangement of epitaphs' to come from the pen of a clergyman in a Christian country. I have wondered if the pen with which he wrote was a steel pen.
The author, Charles Shaw, inveighed bitterly against the 'gross selfishness and unspeakable crassness' of the 'statesmanship of England' for imposing these miseries.
All of which - and much more - might have gone some way towards explaining Dickens's facetious tone in describing the Westminster fire, which MPs themselves and all those interested in the history of these magnificent old buildings, containing countless documents of historical importance, saw as 'that melancholy catastrophe'.8 The Speaker, Charles Manners-Sutton, reckoned he had lost £9,000 worth of goods in the fire, including a valuable library.
On that fateful evening of 16 October, Mrs Wright, the housekeeper, locked the door of the House at five, feeling that she had done her duty in complaining to the workmen about the smoke and heat. Around an hour later, the doorkeeper's wife, Mrs Mullencamp, noticed flames licking the underneath of the door of the House of Lords and a few minutes later the entire building burst into flames. It was not until 7 p.m. that James Braidwood, superintendent of the London Fire Engine Establishment, heard of the fire and ordered twelve manual fire engines and sixty-four firemen to attend. By 7.30, fifty of the First Regiment of Grenadier Guards had arrived, and assisted by a strong body of the newly formed and much-hated Metropolitan Police they kept a space clear in front of both Houses.
Among the immense crowd gathered to watch the blaze was Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851), who stayed up all night doing innumerable pencil sketches. Afterwards he rushed home to Queen Anne Street to do so many watercolour studies, based on immediate memory, that the leaves of his sketchbook stuck together. First he was on the Surrey bank surveying the scene from afar across the water. As the blaze died down however he came over and joined the thousands who thronged into Old Palace Yard.
'I never lose an accident,' Turner once told his most articulate admirer. This particular accident, this blaze of orange and gold reflected in the inky waters of the Thames at night, must have seemed to Turner like one of his own canvases come to life. The moment when the roof of the House of Lords crashed in was 'accompanied with an immense volume of flame and smoke' emitting 'in every direction billions of sparks and flakes of fire'. It sounded, said an observer, like the report of a piece of heavy ordnance, like an explosion. In all likelihood Turner, who saw visual images as symbols, envisioned the fire as an emblem of the old world being done away with, purged and destroyed. In which case he can hardly have been alone. The crowds were mostly silent as they witnessed the spectacle, but when the flames increased one man cheered and was instantly arrested.
Lord Melbourne (1779-1848) himself, the prime minister, personally directed the attempts to save Westminster Hall from being engulfed. Fire engines were brought inside the Hall in order to play water on the replacement hammerbeam roof which had been added to William Rufus's original building when Geoffrey Chaucer was the clerk of works. It was the only substantial medieval building in the entire rich complexity to survive the night. St Stephen's Chapel, where the Commons had sat since 1547, was burnt out, though engravings of the ruin suggest that it could have been saved had the atmosphere of the times been more minded to conserve than to rebuild.
For something, unquestionably, more than a collection of much-loved old buildings was ablaze. Britain was changing, and changing more rapidly and more creatively than any other country in the world. Within three years of witnessing the destruction of the Palace of Westminster, the prime minister, Lord Melbourne, was to see the death of the old King William IV (1765-1837) and the accession of Queen Victoria (1819-1901). Melbourne was Queen Victoria's mentor, her father-figure. Together this somewhat unlikely pair, the world-weary cynical Whig peer and the plain, diminutive, teenaged monarch, gazed forward to a new world more populous, more competitive and more adaptable than the Reverend Thomas Malthus could have envisaged in his worst nightmares. His death in Bath in the very year of the New Poor Laws, and of the Westminster fire, could also be seen as emblematic.
What Malthus failed to predict, with his arithmetical versus geometric rates, was the colossal growth in wealth in the era which would be known as Victorian. The more people, the more wealth-producers there were. It was an era of paupers, pauperism, famine, disease, certainly. In this, his predictions were more than amply fulfilled in the first decade of the new reign. But it was also an era of prodigious energy, growth and expansion. Foreign observers were astounded to watch Great Britain, in 1830, producing 2,000 tons per working day of iron - that is 650,000-700,000 tons per year. By 1855, the figure had risen to 1 million tons of iron per annum. The same sort of figures could be discovered for coal production, for steamships, for machine-produced cotton and woollen goods. Though life was tough in the industrial towns where all this wealth was manufactured, more, numerically, benefited than suffered. Looking back at it all, our hearts are wrung by the plight of those who profited nothing from the grind and struggle of capitalism. The fortunes of the Victorian millionaires, the mill-owners, the mine-owners, the engineers and the speculative builders, were founded on the suffering of others. Nor was this suffering accidental. The struggle, the eternal warfare between the weak and the strong, the inexorable survival of the fittest, seems by this view of things to be a law of Nature, cruelly replacing the older belief that it was love which ruled the sun and other stars.
To one observer at least - and a highly influential one - it seemed as though this was quite literally the case. While the Houses of Parliament crackled and blazed, in October 1834, HMS Beagle, a ten-gun brig under the command of Captain Robert Fitzroy RN, was sailing towards Tierra del Fuego. Aboard was a naturalist, then aged twenty-five, by the name of Charles Darwin (1809-82). It was during this voyage, when observing the finches of the Galapagos Islands, that Darwin's mind first directed itself towards the evolution of life on this planet. Many years would elapse before isolated observations coalesced into an overall vision, or a hunch became a theory. That, by his own account, only began to happen after 1838. The crucial moment in his intellectual development, he tells us, occurred not when observing finches, or pigeons, or apes, but when reading Malthus's Essay on Population. 'In October 1838,' Charles Darwin recorded in his Autobiography, 'that is 15 months after I had begun my systematic enquiry, I happened to read for amusement Malthus on Population and being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence which everywhere goes on . . . it at once struck me that under these circumstances favourable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. The result of this would be the formation of a new species. Here, then, I had at last got a theory by which to work.'
It was at once the most creative and destructive of theories, as the unfolding years would show.
Darwin's hour was not yet come. The two writers who stand at the beginning of the Victorian Age like choruses to the drama, one in tragic, the other in comic mask, are Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) and Charles Dickens. Carlyle's French Revolution, after many adventures (which included the only manuscript of volume 1 being inadvertently burnt by John Stuart Mill's housemaid), was published in book form for the first time in 1837, the year of the Queen's accession. It was also the year which saw the final instalment of the serial publication of The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club.
When we gasp with astonishment at the undemocratic nature of government (even after the Reform Bill) in the early decades of the nineteenth century; when we deplore the gap between rich and poor; when we survey the Britain of workhouses, of coal mines worked by children, of grinding poverty and even starvation in town and country, it is a striking fact that two of the most distinctive voices of the age, two of the most literate and imaginative, should not have come from privileged backgrounds. Dickens, the son of a government clerk imprisoned in the Marshalsea Prison for debt, had only rudimentary schooling and next to no money when, as a very young man, he began to report parliamentary debates in the Monthly Magazine. By modern standards, the poverty of the Carlyle family in Ecclefechan, Dumfriesshire, was little above a subsistence level; but by comparison with other Scotch peasants, Carlyle's parents, enterprising and thrifty, were prosperous, even though their children went barefoot until they began school, and they lived on a diet of oatmeal, milk and potatoes. Thanks to the admirable educational system in Scotland by which a clever boy could rise, however poor he was, Carlyle went to Edinburgh University and immersed himself in contemporary European literature, language and philosophy. He was the great interpreter of German poetry and philosophy to the English-speaking world.
It was to France, however, that he went at the age of twenty-nine on a visit which was of crucial importance. It is difficult to overestimate the extent to which the British, after the defeat of Napoleon, continued to feel paranoia about France. Not only did all the English military, and many of their politicians, continue to believe that the greatest political threat came from France (up to and even during the Crimean War when French and English were supposedly allies); not only did Palmerston and Wellington fear the prospect of French invasion long after the very possibility of such an event had been extinguished; but France was also seen as the very object lesson of what could happen if a society imploded. For Tories of the old school, the lesson was simple enough: start to dabble with religious freethinkers, or to question the aristocratic system, and before long you find a guillotine erected; you find kings having their heads chopped off; you find the Reign of Terror and Robespierre.
For Carlyle, the story was less simple. The drama of the French Revolution is of electrifying fascination for this Scottish genius of peasant ancestry. Carlyle was one of those who had taken leave of orthodox religious belief, and certainly would never pretend to be a Christian, although he went on reading the Bible and believing that there was something Providential in the working of history itself.
We sow what we reap, both as individuals and as societies. This is the simple and compelling message of The French Revolution - though it is also the most exciting and readable work of history (I should say) in the English language. To the French to this day it is largely unknown. But no English-speaker can think of the French Revolution without using Carlyle's words - 'seagreen incorruptible', 'whiff of grapeshot'. Many, without knowing they have done so, have absorbed his views, even if they have not read his book.
Carlyle demonstrates clearly and relentlessly how the ancien régime was bound to fall, how the relentlessly selfish aristocrats and royal family could expect nothing less than a destructive apocalypse. But he is no advocate of the Terror, and his seagreen Robespierre is one of the great monsters of literature. Carlyle's agonies in print were to become the inner torments, political, religious and philosophical, of his generation, which is why he was the greatest of its prophets in the English-speaking world. He could not believe in Christianity, but his was no Voltairean delight at having done away with the old superstitions. He mourned his absent Christ and he trembled for a society with no sense of the awesome, no reverence before the great mysteries. Above all, he feared what would happen in a society which plainly could not sustain (morally or politically) a system of oligarchic privilege but which could so easily slither into something worse - anarchy, mayhem, butchery. The notion that the spiritual and political malaise of his times could be solved by parliamentary reforms, by extending the franchise or by allowing the vote to those living in households worth more than £10 rent - the notion that this could bring the Kingdom of God to Earth was ludicrous to him.
Carlyle was perhaps one of those thinkers who was strongest when he was accentuating the negative, and weakest when proposing his alternatives. His dissection of the weakness of any alternative to aristocratic government, yet the precariousness of that system itself, made many of his contemporaries shake. Carlyle was not a detached schoolroom historian - he was a great journalist who observed 'the condition of England' and saw terrible poverty, injustice, inefficiency and spiritual hunger. He was not optimistic about the prospects of his contemporaries avoiding a revolution even worse than the French. But almost worse than this, in his view, was the horrifying effect on thousands of human lives of the industrial, capitalist revolution which made so many not merely economic slaves but dullards, incapable of seeing the sort of intellectual or spiritual truths which had been clear to his own pre-industrialized, though poverty-stricken, relations and family.
Carlyle, though a vigorously comic writer, and one of the great wits both on the acerbic page and in his own conversation, had an ultimately tragic vision of life and of the world. It would be hard to conceive of a more different temperament from that which created The Pickwick Papers.
Few famous novels can have had more desultory origins. A comic draughtsman by the name of Robert Seymour had recently made a success with his Humorous Sketches, mocking the social pretensions of tradesmen who rise in the world. Seymour was an unhappy man, of illegitimate birth and depressive temperament. Riding on the success of the Sketches, he offered to Chapman and Hall, publishers, a series of drawings depicting the adventures of the 'Nimrod Club', Cockney sportsmen having absurd adventures. Dickens had already attracted notice with Sketches by Boz, journalistic observations of London life. Hall asked if he could supply some of the same for the adventures of the Nimrod Club. So, at the age of twenty-four, Dickens obliged.
Between the first and second episode of the book being published, however, melancholy Seymour had gone into his garden in the Liverpool Road, Islington, and shot himself. It is sometimes supposed that he did so because he resented Dickens receiving all the praise for what had been originally his creation. In fact, the first number had very little notice and sold only 400 copies. Seymour's suicide was prompted by his own mental illness, not Dickens's success. One of the illustrators who applied for the job in Seymour's stead was a tall public schoolboy called William Makepeace Thackeray. But the job was given to R.W. Buss, and thereafter writer and draughtsman worked in tandem.
The story, published between 1836 and 1837 in serial parts, was a rambling picaresque; its first audiences were drawn by a Janus-like double-appeal. On the one hand it celebrates and fantasizes about the holiday-freedoms of the swelling lower middle class from which Dickens himself sprang. In this sense, it is utterly modern. On the other hand it is a nostalgic snapshot, or series of snapshots, of an England which industry and the railways were to change forever.
Pickwick revealed (and perhaps in some senses created) the existence of a new public. Before it was published, the reading public was divided. Newspapers cost sevenpence. A three-volume novel cost £1. 11s. 6d. Only the substantial middle, upper middle and upper class bought what we should call broadsheet papers or hardback novels. Beneath this class of perhaps 50,000 readers there were those who read popular fiction purveyed not in book form but in cheap periodicals, loose paperbacks sold by travelling salesmen from door to door or at street markets. Ballad-sheets, satires and popular romances would be sold in this way by vendors not unlike Silas Wegg in Our Mutual Friend. Some of Dickens's contemporaries, such as William Harrison Ainsworth, the popular imitator of Sir Walter Scott, believed that the young journalist was making a grave mistake in writing fiction in this popular form, the loose-covered serial; a form hitherto reserved only for low trash. But within months, the sales of Pickwick had risen to tens of thousands. Hereafter, many of the great novels by Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope, George Eliot and others would be published serially in one of the many periodicals of the day.
Pickwick mania seized first Britain, then abroad. (It was especially popular in Russia.) Pickwick chintzes began to appear in drapers' shops. Breeches-makers were asked to cut their products to imitate the nether garments of Mr Pickwick's Sancho Panza, the cockney servant Sam Weller. Mr Tupman, Mr Snodgrass and Mr Winkle, the esteemed members of the Pickwick Club, were all turned into Toby jugs. There were pastries called Pickwicks and sugar confections in the shape of the Fat Boy. Now, such 'marketing' tricks are invented by successful publishers to cash in on the popularity of a character in a film or a book. Pickwick mania was spontaneous, and the market tapped by Chapman and Hall - a new market, a new class of people altogether - had partially defined itself by its response to Dickens.
The political student of The Pickwick Papers would absorb much of the spirit of this important class - the petite bourgeoisie who were, successively, and throughout the period, to support Free Trade, and to cheer when the Corn Laws were abolished because such measures would bring in an era of universal peace; yet they would also cheer eight years later when Britain fought an entirely avoidable war against Russia in the Crimea. They would, like the electors at Muggleton in The Pickwick Papers, 'have presented at divers times no fewer than one thousand four hundred and twenty petitions against the continuance of negro slavery abroad, and an equal number against any interference with the factory system at home'. Equally, those who cheered Lord Palmerston for the bombardment of Brazilian slave-ports, and who asserted their belief in freeing the negro, would have the most bloodthirsty and vengeful views of how to put down the Indian Mutiny in 1857. Pleased with the extension of the franchise to include £10 householders, this class would support Liberal measures for education in 1870. But they it was who would keep in power the oligarchy, chiefly aristocratic, who controlled the parliamentary system. In so far as they were pro-Reform Bills (both of 1832 and 1867) you could imagine them to be progressive. But they were always anti-socialist, and though they might have been anti the early nineteenth-century Toryism of Lord Liverpool, they loved Disraeli, and they voted Lord Salisbury into office over and over again.
Part of the difficulty, for a twenty-first-century reader of Victorian life, is how to draw the political map, how to see the world in those imaginative terms which help to form a political vision. In the terms of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, free enterprise and a belief in the market are 'right-wing' beliefs, and the desire to check the voracious energy of pure capitalism seems to us 'left-wing'. But when, in Little Dorrit, Dickens was to satirize government bureaucracy in the 'Circumlocution Office', it was old Tory red tape which he was mocking. Old Tite Barnacle 'wound and wound folds of white cravat round his neck, as he wound and wound folds of tape and paper round the neck of the country'. That is just the complaint which free-market capitalists made of state socialists in the closing decades of the twentieth century. But in the early to middle years of the nineteenth century a radical liberal like Dickens made the complaint of paternalistic interfering Toryism.
Pickwick is a free spirit. He is a small-time merchant who has been released from the slavery which oppresses so many of Dickens's characters in the later books - the high desk, the scratch pen, the factory gate, the suppression of true sentiment (as in Wemmick's office sentiments, contrasted with the 'Walworth' sentiments of his Aged P and home). Pickwick has achieved what all enterprising Victorians aimed for - financial independence. He and his companions set out, in 1827 - ten years before the publication of the book, and the start of the Victorian era - on a series of absurd comic adventures, beginning, significantly enough, where Dickens himself began as a child before the gate slammed on his own personal Eden and his father was ruined: near Rochester.
Bright and pleasant was the sky, balmy the air, and beautiful the appearance of every object around, as Mr Pickwick leant over the balustrade of Rochester Bridge, contemplating nature and waiting for breakfast . . . On either side, the banks of the Medway, covered with cornfields and pastures, with here and there a windmill, or a distant church, stretched away as far as the eye could see, presenting a rich and varied landscape, rendered more beautiful by the changing shadows which passed swiftly across it, as the thin and half-formed clouds, skimmed away in the light of the morning sun.
Even as they read The Pickwick Papers, the first readers could indulge in instant nostalgia. The first railway terminus, Euston, was built in London in the year the book was published. The old era of the stagecoach - each with its name (Defiance, True Blue, Wonder, Tantivy, Star of Brunswick, Isis, Irresistible, Tally Ho, Rocket, Zephyr, Ariel, Emerald, Flower of Kent, Mazeppa) - was to give place to named steam engines, about which in later eras schoolboy enthusiasts would be no less sentimental.
The nostalgia of Pickwick is a large part of its appeal, and it is one of the most remarkable features of the collective Victorian consciousness. That is, while they were in every sense different from previous generations, and glad to be different, they also hankered after the past. Dickens, when he settled in a large house at Gad's Hill, had some false book-backs made for a door in his library, simulating a row of bound leather volumes. The titles, still visible today in a room which is a school office (somehow this is appropriate), come under the heading: 'The Wisdom of our Ancestors - I. Ignorance. II. Superstition. III. The Block. IV. The Stake. V. The Rack. VI. Dirt. VII. Disease.' Dickens had in common with most of his contemporaries a desire to put the old world of injustice, ignorance and disease behind him. He shared with them, too, however, a sentimentality about the past, a sense that industrialization was wrecking the world. This dichotomy, felt by all readers of Pickwick, is to be one of the defining features of nineteenth-century socio-political debates. It defines John Ruskin, for example, who can be claimed, and justly claimed, as the father of English socialism and the bluest of old Tories.
There is another obvious feature of Pickwick which makes an appeal to its admirers; and of all the qualities in its author it is perhaps both the strongest and the hardest with which to come to terms. It is benevolence. How can one talk about this quality without smugness, without being saccharine? The Edinburgh Review in 1838, writing of Dickens, said:
One of the qualities we most admire in him is his comprehensive spirit of humanity. The tendency of his writings is to make us practically benevolent - to excite our sympathy in behalf of the aggrieved and suffering in all classes; and especially in those who are most removed from observation . . .
Many of the 'benevolent' characters in Dickens will strike some readers as clumsily drawn and manipulative of our tear-ducts. One thinks of the brothers Cheeryble or of Mr Brownlow or Pickwick himself. It was well said that 'their facile charity forbids censoriousness; they are too busy being happy to think'. Yet each time one reads A Christmas Carol, it works. The ethics of Scrooge (which are the ethics of Adam Smith and Jeremy Bentham, the ethics of the mill-owners and factory-builders who created the wealth of Victorian England) are held in check by a tremendously simplified form of Christian charity.
Dickens admired and promoted the notion of benevolence, both in his person (for example in his work at Great Ormond Street Children's Hospital) and in his writings, to the point where he must be recognized as a hugely benign force in Victorian England. He is both the cause, and a symptom, of a benevolence which is palpable.
In the pages which follow, we shall read much about the Victorians which makes us feel as harshly about them as Dickens himself did about the Wisdom of our Ancestors. Their failure to better the lives of the urban wage-slaves in factories and mills; their genocidal neglect of the Irish famine; their brutality in India and Africa are not to be overlooked or glossed over. Nor were many of these abuses alleviated until history, as it were, forced them to be: the Empire was taken from the British by the poverty caused by world wars, and socialism of a benign Northern European form was imposed upon them for a corrective five- or ten-year period at the same time and for the same reason. And yet, even in the midst of the abuses, there was a significant number of people behaving benevolently. This seems to occur at all times and in all places throughout the nineteenth century. The landlords in Ireland, even, did not en masse starve and neglect their tenants. Not all mill-owners were monsters. Sanitation and housing was terrible, in many British slums, up to and including the mid-twentieth century. But improvements in general had been made in other areas. And a proper guilt was felt. One must not be smug about these things; for what is being discussed is human misery on an immeasurable scale - in workhouses, factories, slums, colonies, army camps, ships. Yet Dickens, partly because he is so consistently funny a writer, and so unpompous, reminds us of the existence of another Britain, in which the harshness of life is tempered by kindliness. His belief in the power of good-heartedness to triumph over evil is expressed in terms, not of a political programme, but of personality. His world, like the world of Victorian England, is not a Marxian mass: it is a teeming, moving screen of hilarious characters. He was in some senses the least realistic of all great geniuses; more than most writers, he created his own world. Such was his success, however, that we can almost say that the early nineteenth century in England was the England of Dickens. The figures who emerge from its prints and caricatures seem not merely just as odd as anything he created; they seem, rather, as if he did create them, and as if they are speaking lines created for them by him.
Meet the Author
A. N. Wilson is the author of the acclaimed biographies Tolstoy, C. S. Lewis, Jesus, and Paul; God's Funeral, and several celebrated novels. He lives in London.
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